"Frances Ha" is the movie Noah Baumbach wanted to make. He wanted to shoot in black-and-white, in New York City, and he wanted Greta Gerwig to star. The pair had previously worked together on "Greenberg" (2010), where Gerwig played a floundering nanny opposite Ben Stiller (she's Baumbach's new muse--read their New Yorker profile here.)
In "Frances," Gerwig is still flailing, but this time she's doing it with elan. Co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig, the film episodically tracks the foibles and follies of her title character, a 27-year-old modern dancer living in New York. She is hopeless attached to her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner) but their relationship starts to unravel when Sophie elects to move out of their shared apartment and in with her boyfriend. Though Frances' social interactions are marred by clumsy confusion -- "I'm embarrassed, I'm not a real person yet," she tells a date (Adam Driver of "Girls") when she can't pick up the tab -- Frances maintains a sunny sense of optimism.
With a sense of energy that feels loose and jazzy yet highly structured, as the film is segmented in chapters, "Frances" is Baumbach's warmest and most accessible film to date. Baumbach is known for writing often mean-spirited, over-educated characters such as the divorcing couple in his breakout film "The Squid and the Whale" (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) or Nicole Kidman's bitter short story writer in "Margot at the Wedding." "Frances" has a freewheeling, mumblecore quality and a sympathy for its characters unprecedented in the director's work.
On Monday night, Film Independent at LACMA screened the film for members, and Baumbach, Gerwig and Sumner appeared for a Q and A by Drew McWeeney.
On beginning "Frances Ha":
Baumbach (neurotic but self-possessed, with deadpan delivery) described "Frances Ha" as "a road movie where nobody went anywhere." He and Gerwig were involved in the process of filmmaking from the very start. "I wanted to do something where she was the center of it, and I just had an instinct that she would be a good collaborator." After Baumbach asked her if she wanted to make another film after "Greenberg," Gerwig sent him rough treatments of ideas for the film that would become "Frances Ha."
"The first stuff she sent me resonated so much, it was so inspiring to me," he said. "I felt like I could see the movie already. I didn't know what it was, but I knew there was a movie somewhere here."
"We didn't really set out to make a film about a female friendship," Gerwig said. "It wasn't a thesis statement we were executing in the screenplay. While we were writing scenes and coming up with moments, it was something that kept circling back. We were seeing these patterns emerge and as soon as we realized it was a love story and the love object was Sophie, it really gave it a motor focus."
On the set:
Inflected with zeitgeisty specificity in much the same way Lena Dunham's New York-set series "Girls," the naturalistic dialogue of "Frances Ha" almost feels like improv. But this is not the case. "There was no playing," Gerwig said, over the course of a 50-day shoot. "There was no improv. We did lots and lots of takes and most of what you see is, like, take 38."
Baumbach joked: "There's a lot of room to play -- you just have to do it with the lines as written. Those are your toys."
On Gerwig developing a rapport with Sumner:
The relationship developed organically on set as it did in the screenplay, Gerwig said: "Film sets are a place where within a day and a half of shooting, you feel like you've never not known these people. We didn't say, 'Let's create a real friendship off screen that we can bring to this screen.' Mickey just understood it in her heart so quickly. We didn't feel the need to add sugar to sugar."
"Frances Ha" is Baumbach's first film shot in black-and-white, and considering the film's New York location, literate banter and relationship-based focus, comparisons to Woody Allen's chatty, B & W romantic comedy "Manhattan" are easy to draw.
"It's near impossible to make a movie in black and white in the system," Baumbach said. "I wanted to reinvent how I could make a movie and with technology as it is, there was an opportunity for it. The material felt black-and-white to me. I'm not 27 anymore, but there's something both old and new about the film, almost an instant nostalgia. At the same time, because you aren't distracted by color, there's more immediacy to it.
"But that's somewhat retrospective. I really just wanted to make a movie in black-and-white," Baumbach candidly added.